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Open Season: A wild imagination, frozen lake lead to memorable time ice fishing

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Peering into the muddled, turquoise abyss below, it's hard not to let one's imagination run free.

Who really knows what scaled monstrosities cruise the depths? Especially when bait - this time, an impaled fathead minnow - fervently pulses against its unwilling bondage.

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The sun burns orange and lilac as it sets, reflecting off the inner fabric of my portable ice fishing house and into the mirror stillness of the water below. Resulting eerie, mirage-like shadows only spur dreamy visions...

Unabated by friend or foe, 12-pound walleyes hug so close to the bottom, they leave a trail in the sand like an inner tube on a sledding hill.

Rocketing northern pike big enough to harass the appendages of clueless swimmers during the summer months, stalk wary prey at every turn underneath a thickening sheet of ice.

Tiger-striped perch boast sumo-wrestler potbellies. Crappies and sunfish are so large their fillets actually live up to the "panfish" moniker.

Yes, it's easy to let your mind wander when staring down an ice-fishing hole, fingering the line ever so lightly to give your lure that "just right" action. It wanders so much, in fact, that it's easy to miss things.

Important things.

Like that subtle hiss as the last vaporous wisps of propane slowly pulse out of the heater, the flame of the pilot light dancing softly before sputtering out - dead.

When the temperature is 11 below zero and falling, and the horizon is in the process of swallowing the sun, heater-less ice fishing makes for frustrating ice fishing.

Still, I wait knowing that, as twilight emerges, hungry walleyes will come up from the depths to feed in the shallows.

Then it happens. My Marcum LX-I - a flasher-style electronic depth finder commonly used for ice fishing - gives away movement near the bottom. A red light signals my jigging spoon six inches above the lake floor while a fainter green line shows the position of a wiggling fathead on the deadstick to my left.

A third line that fades from green to yellow to red as the sonar signal intensifies, gradually rises up from the lake bottom. But where is it going? My eyes nervously flit back and forth between the two rods, waiting for a sign that the fish has accepted one of the tantalizing offerings.

The red line stops first at my jig and I hold my breath, subconsciously bestowing upon the cold-blooded creature some irrational, hypersensitive hearing ability. The red line hesitates, and then continues upward in the water column inching closer to the weak, green line.

From the edge of the hole, crystallizing ice has formed inward and frozen my bobber in place. Before I have time to bust it loose, the piece of foam violently jolts free and slowly - almost painfully so - sinks below the surface. The float is shadowed in front of spiraling auger grooves that glow like fiber optic cables, and I patiently wait for it to wander from my sight.

I know that the walleye requires time to eat the bait. Often, when a bobber goes down, fishermen react too quickly and yank the morsel harmlessly from a fish's mouth.

So I wait, silently mouthing the words as I count:

One Mississippi...

Two Mississippi...

Three Mississippi...

When 30 Mississippis have come and gone, and the bobber is well out of sight, I grasp the rod handle, gingerly lifting it off the floor. Legs steadied and lips pursed, I jerk skyward with all my might as if driving a nail into an invisible ceiling joist.

Nothing - no resistance.

The miss takes me off guard and I nearly lose my balance. Floundering flanges fling out instinctively to grab an aluminum pole that makes up the skeletal frame of the ice house.

Wide-eyed and more than a little embarrassed I, for once, am glad to be fishing alone.

I can't hear anything over the drum line that is my heart beating. But before I can gather myself or my thoughts, a flicker on the flasher reveals yet another hungry fish below.

There is no hesitation this time. The red line races to the jig affixed 20 feet below the pole now lying listlessly by my side. Before I have time to react, the fish has grabbed the bait and is in the process of yanking the pole down with it.

It is not so lucky. Taking drag from the ultra-light reel, the fish's struggles subside as I carefully play it to the surface.

A beautifully plump walleye graces the hole and soon flops at the bottom of my bucket.

After nearly an hour of action intermixed with frustrated cussing due to frozen eyelets and slipping bobber stops, I call it a night. In the end, misses outweigh catches. Most fish were too small, but the two decent walleyes in possession would be enough for Grandma and Grandpa's dinner.

One last trial remained. The Coleman lantern I should have to guide me as I pack sits uselessly in grandpa's shed. So, I manage with starlight instead. Bitter cold saps strength from extremities, but also motivates me to move quickly.

Seeing my plight, a Good Samaritan who also is calling it a night, offers shelter in his pickup truck and a ride back to the landing.

He, too, had success during the flurry of action. In between sniffles and blowing on hands, we talk about the fishing, the weather, the ice.

It is comforting to know that, in the frigid, inky blackness of a cold winter's night, a stranger's kindness warms the soul faster than any heater.

Tyler Shoberg is Sports Editor of the Pioneer as well as an avid hunter and fisherman. He can be reached at 701-451-5717 or tshoberg@westfargopioneer.com.

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